|Rebecca Anstine Smith in her harp studio on the University of Maryland campus.
Rebecca Anstine Smith ’77 started playing the harp at a funeral home—and wound up at the Kennedy Center.
You might imagine the harp as the delicate music of cherubs. But on this spring day, in her University of Maryland studio, Smith plays her harp, and it’s pure thunder. Her fingers are strong and fast. They pull resonant lows, rich enough to make sound nearly tangible, and even her gossamer highs have courage and certitude. Smith can clothe harp sounds in diamonds or work boots and, either way, break your heart with the beauty of it.
That she should end up a professional harpist feels predestined, at least in retrospect.
“I had a little harp-shaped birthmark on my forearm,” Smith says, laughing. “It’s faded away now.”
Maybe it was that, or maybe it was her mother’s love for the harp that gave Smith’s father the idea to buy his very young daughter a Lyon & Healy Gold Style 23. (In production since 1895, it’s a 47-string, 6-foot beauty and probably the most recognizable harp in the world.)
“He was a funeral director,” Smith says. “It was something he could offer for funerals—a harpist.”
She took to it, and even when the funeral home was sold after her father died when Smith was only 14, she carried on. She took lessons in her hometown of York, Pa., and while she was at Dickinson as a French and German major, she drove to her harp teacher’s house in Mechanicsburg in a car borrowed from Susan Painter Kistler ’77.
Smith loved the languages, but as her passion for the harp deepened, something had to give. So with knees shaking and a solid argument in mind, she finally took her most fervent wish to Dickinson’s administration—that they would bring her harp teacher to the college as an instructor—and they agreed. As a result, Smith dropped German because, she says, she adored it but wasn’t as good at it, and changed her double major to French and music. Best of all, she no longer had to borrow a car to get to lessons.
After graduation she spent one of many summers to come at the world-famous Salzedo School in Camden, Maine, where she studied with masters who became like family to her: Alice Chalifoux from the Cleveland Conservatory—who, at this writing, is 98 and still a great friend to Smith—and Alice’s niece, Jeanne Chalifoux—who later became godmother to Smith’s son, Neal, 13. Jeanne teaches at The Johns Hopkins University Peabody Institute, where Smith completed her master’s in harp in 1979.
Just as Smith graduated from Peabody, there came an opening for principle harpist with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
“Yeah, right,” is what she thought at the time, assessing her chances of landing the position. But in January 1980, still wet behind the ears and generally scared to death, Smith beat out 80 professional harpists to win the audition. She became the Kennedy Center’s only harpist.
“Boy, did I learn how green I was,” Smith says. “I made friends with the piccolo player to help me find my way, and I worked hard.”
Sometimes the Kennedy Center’s schedule required more than a month without a day off. Sometimes she played eight performances a week. It was rigorous, and for 10 years she loved it. “I used to think, ‘Is this really happening?’ I’d walk out on the red carpet and pinch my cheeks. I was so grateful,” she says.
And then Smith made a decision that her colleagues called crazy.
“I quit,” she says. “In 1990, my husband Jeff and I had our first child, Amelia. I knew what would happen if I stayed. I fully dedicate myself to what I’m doing, and I didn’t want to choose between a performance and my child.
“At the time, I got almost no support from my colleagues,” she continues. “They said I had ruined my life. But they were wrong. Decisions like that are always gray. There is a price to pay—like the loss of regular income. But I still work like crazy. It’s just that I get to decide where and when.”
Today, Smith regularly is invited to play with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and in her old stomping grounds at the Kennedy Center, where she just spent the month of June playing in the orchestra for Mame. She also teaches harp at the University of Maryland as well as privately in her Crofton, Md., home and in a Methodist church on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“My job is to teach people how to teach themselves,” she says. “It shouldn’t be called practice, it is work. You have to be a deep-sea diver when learning new music. You have to go down under and learn it from the bottom up. You have to study it as a scholar. You can’t just surf across the top, looking great but not understanding what’s underneath.”
Her 20 students range from ages 6 to 75.
“There’s a ripple effect that makes what I do feel important,” she says. “One of my students plays for Hospice. Another plays for a multiple sclerosis support group. When I do a performance with a symphony, it’s special. But when I’m done, it’s gone. With teaching, these students carry forward a part of me. It’s like a legacy passing from my teachers, to me, to my students.”
Smith’s other passion is horses. She and Amelia, 16, spend lots of time with Romance, their retired thoroughbred racer, and Smith is as dedicated to that horse as she is to everything else.
“There can be cruelty in horseracing,” Smith says. “When we bought Romance, he hadn’t had the best life. I promised myself I’d take care of him, always. Amelia is learning important lessons about being responsible and putting others’ needs before her own. Not every teenager gets that.”
On this day in her studio, Smith is worried about Romance. Her veterinarian thinks the horse might need to be put down due to an arthritic spine. She’s waiting for a second opinion. She finds it hard to talk without tears.
Smith is also a softy about strays, even though an adopted cat or two has, on occasion, jumped up on one among the “forest of harps” she has at home, causing it to crash into a wall. And harps can easily cost $40,000 each. “Cats and harps don’t mix well,” she says.
Sometimes harps and horses don’t get along, either. In 2002 Smith performed A Little Night Music at the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Festival. Near the end of the show’s run, she was riding a friend’s horse, which spooked and bucked her off.
Her lip was bleeding, and her head was fuzzy. But what really worried her was the little cut on her finger. She missed one performance but in true show-must-go-on fashion, she went back—despite head trauma and a numb finger.
That night, Smith noticed an extra chair in the orchestra pit, not far from her harp bench.
“Sure enough,” she says, “the chair was for Stephen Sondheim. He’s wonderful, and we felt so privileged that he wanted to sit with us. But, what timing. Somehow, I didn’t miss a beat in the performance. I have no idea if Mr. Sondheim knew.”
Smith hasn’t ridden a horse since. “The harp is my greater passion. I can’t chance another fall. But I still love horses, especially my daughter’s.”
Which brings us back to Romance, who is alive and well, thanks to a holistic equine chiropractor—and a dedicated harpist.